Q&A: Should We Be Having Babies In a Warming World? 

Jade S. Sasser has been studying reproductive choices in the context of climate change for a quarter century. Her 2018 book, “Infertile Ground,” explored how population growth in the Global South has been misguidedly framed as a crisis—a perspective that Sasser argues had its roots in long-standing racial stereotypes about sexuality and promiscuity.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sasser, an environmental scientist who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, started asking different questions, this time about reproductive choices in the Global North. In an era in which the planet is getting hotter by the day, she wondered, is it morally, ethically or practically sound to bring children into the world? And do such factors as climate anxiety, race and socio-economic status shape who decides to have kids and who doesn’t?

The result is her latest book, “Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question,” which was published last month by the University of California Press and centers on a range of issues that are part of a broader conversation among those who try to practice climate-conscious decision-making.

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From the outset, Sasser cautions that her work does not attempt to draw any conclusions about what the future might hold or how concerns about global warming might affect population growth going forward.

“This book is not predictive,” Sasser said in a recent interview with Inside Climate News. “It’s too soon to be able to say, ‘OK, these are going to be the trends. These people are not going to have children, or are going to have fewer children or this many, that many.’ We’re at the beginning of witnessing what could be a significant trend.”

Sasser said that one of the most compelling findings of her research was how survey results showed that women of color were the demographic cohort that reported that they were most likely to have at least one child fewer than what they actually want because of climate change. “No other group in that survey responded that way,” Sasser said.

Those survey results, Sasser said, underscores the prevalence of climate anxiety among communities of color. A Yale study published last year found that Hispanic Americans were five times as likely to experience feelings of climate change anxiety when compared to their white counterparts; Black Americans were twice as likely to have those feelings.

“There is a really large assumption that we don’t experience climate anxiety,” said Sasser, who is African American. “And we do. How could we not? We experience most of the climate impacts first and worst. And the few surveys that have been done around people of color and climate emotions showed that Black and Latinx people feel more worry and more concerned about climate change than other groups.”

Sasser, who also produced a seven-episode podcast as part of the project, said that she hopes her work can help fill what she sees as a void in the public’s awareness of climate anxiety in communities of color.

“Every single thing I was reading just didn’t include us in the discussion at all,” Sasser said. “I found myself in conversations with people who were not people of color and they were saying, ‘Well, I think people of color are just more resilient and don’t feel climate anxiety. And this doesn’t factor into their reproductive lives.’ That’s just simply not true. But how would we know that without the research to tell us? But now I’ve started down that road, and I really, really hope that other researchers will take up the mantle and continue studying these questions in the context of race in the future.”

Sasser recently sat down with Inside Climate News to talk about the book and how she uses her research to show how climate emotions land hardest on marginalized groups, people of color and low-income groups. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you come to write “Climate and the Kid Question”?

This is a book that I was not expecting to write. It was my pandemic pivot project. I was working on something very different, focused on household energy in the Global South. And then COVID happened and I could no longer travel. And so I had to turn to the things that I had been compiling as part of a project that I saw as being on the back burner. 

And what I had been compiling was articles about young women climate activists who were talking about not having children in response to climate change. And when I had first encountered these articles, I misunderstood them. I thought that these women were motivated by erroneous ideas about overpopulation, or that they weren’t having children because they thought there were too many people on the earth, things like that.

But when I delved more deeply into what I was reading, I began to become aware of the whole world of eco-emotions and climate emotions. And that’s when I was introduced to the terms eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. And then I began to understand where these young people were coming from on a much, much deeper level. And so this book is my response to three years of research delving into climate emotions, distressing emotions, in particular, how those emotions are impacting how young people feel morally and ethically about having children, about raising children, about the future. And also what race and inequality have to do with it all.

You’ve been studying issues of population growth for a while now, right? That was the focus of your first book, “On Infertile Ground.” 

I’ve been having those conversations for, I guess, 25 years now. And in those conversations, I’ve always been curious about what motivates young women to want or not want children, to have or not have them at any particular moment in time. And in the first book those questions centered around “how do these really large scale ideas and policies that are informed by ideas about overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, who should or should not have children?” I, at that time, was curious about how that was informing activism, and how everyday experience in places like Madagascar was shaped by that. 

This book is very different. What is different is that I focus on the United States. I also look at movements in Canada and in England, but I’m not looking at the Global South at all, intentionally. And the reason why is because people in the Global North—specifically the U.S. and Canada and Britain—have really different perspectives on personal reproductive behavior and environmental issues. And what is different is here you have a lot of young people who are very climate aware and climate literate. 

They’re reading the science. They’re taking environmental studies classes. They’re asking questions about what this means for their personal lives, and they’re making decisions about their personal lives based on what they anticipate is coming in the future. And to see the racial inequality and socio-economic inequality as it shapes those questions—it’s very context specific. 

And I wanted to get into that context specific stuff here in the United States, because I think it’s really easy for some people to skim over that. I’ve read articles and op-eds in the past saying things like, well, “people in the United States are worried about having children in the context of climate change.” And it makes sense because people in the U.S. over-consume resources. So people in the U.S. are not all the same. We’re not all having the same experiences. We don’t occupy the same social location. We are not impacted by climate change in the same ways. 

And so I wanted to really shine a light on how social inequality right here makes the experience of climate change and climate injustice very, very difficult for people of color. And how those climate inequalities and climate impacts land on the mental health and emotional health of people of color. And how people of color feel differently about bringing children into the world as a result.

Are you a mother? Do you have children? The decision of having a child is such a personal one.

I’m not a mother. I think actually that it’s a personal decision that has been made political for so long. And I think that the way that most people talk and write about this issue is that they are actively saying do or don’t. Unfortunately, most environmentalists throughout the history of environmentalism have fallen on the side of saying don’t have children. And I think that has been a very dangerous thing to say in particular, because those that they’ve been telling not to have children have tended to be low-income people and people of color. 

I think that the other thing is one of the arguments I make in the book that you’ll see is that I personally don’t actually think that this is private. And what I mean by that is the conditions of climate change, which are the conditions that young people today are living in as they make their reproductive decisions. Those aren’t private. Those aren’t personal. Those are public. Those are big public actions that these big actors, corporations and governments and militaries are taking. And we are all living in this big collective shared experience of climate change. And if that’s the social circumstance in which you have to think about whether to have kids or not, it’s really not a private decision. 

You have to respond to the big social conditions you’re living in. And when people take it on as a private issue or a personal matter, that tends to lead to more feelings of guilt or stigma or like they’re doing something wrong or like there’s something wrong with them for perhaps not wanting to have kids. And so I actually advocate for having this conversation more in public. And really placing responsibility on those who deserve it. And that is the big corporate actors, the fossil fuel companies, the military and governments, government actors, elected officials, who are not creating and supporting climate-forward legislation.

In terms of research, the study of climate emotions is still fairly new, right?

So, climate emotions have really only been studied in the last 20 years. And as they’re being studied, they are ramping up in real time. So climate emotions are any kind of emotional changes or emotional impact that results from how people experience—either learning about, or living through, or anticipating—the impacts of climate change. So those who don’t necessarily ever experience evacuation from a wildfire or hurricane or flood might still be deeply distressed by climate impacts. 

If they’re reading the science, they’re looking at the reports or, you know, they’re watching TV, or engrossed in social media and hearing about other people who are experiencing those things. And what climate emotions researchers have been uncovering is that this emotional distress lands hardest on younger people, especially Generation Z. 

What those researchers have studied less of, and what I do in this book, is understand how other groups, particularly socially marginalized groups, people of color and low-income groups are also people on whom those climate emotions land hardest. And when I say climate emotions, distressing emotions, include things like anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, fear and other emotions like that.

How does race play a factor in how we all process those emotions?

What I found in a survey that I conducted, doing this research is that for people of color, the most distressing emotions were reported by people of color, who in a statistically significant way, most identified feeling traumatized by the impact of climate change. They also reported feeling fear more so than white respondents. 

And they also reported feeling overwhelmed. And that came out a lot in interviews, too. What I was not anticipating—but this is also significant—is that when it came to parenting in the midst of climate change, people of color in my study were most likely to report positive or action-oriented emotions, including feeling motivated, feeling determined, feeling a sense of happiness or optimism. Because that was a quantitative survey, I wasn’t able to ask questions about why those positive emotions were there.

But I can only imagine that it’s because people of color really have long histories of facing existential threat. Black and Indigenous people, in particular, have had to develop tools to become resilient, to become resilient within community, within family and within social movements. And so I can only imagine that those responses of motivation, joy, determination and happiness come from that sense of “we will survive, we will endure and whatever future is ahead we will be—and we will find a way to thrive.”

So, does your work really underscore the importance of African Americans and communities of color—in the face of these threats—drawing strength from family?

Not just family. We can trace a long history in the United States of Black people, literally, facing threats to our existence, from literally the earliest days of being in this country through slavery. And so one of the things that has always been a really important institution to protect us from the harms of the outside world is family, and not just family, but multigenerational family. And for us, that often includes chosen family. 

We all have “play cousins,” “play aunties,” “play uncles”—people who are not biological kin. But the lack of biological relationship does not matter at all. They are members of the family. Building and sustaining those multi-generational ties has always been important to strengthen us, not just against big existential threats, but to strengthen us in a society in which we often don’t have the necessary resources and social supports that we need. 

We often have the absence of a social safety net to provide for us in the ways that we need to be provided for. Other institutions provide those supports, as well. The church, for example. Say what you want about the Black church—there are challenges, there have always been challenges, but the Black church has been a really important institution in the lives of African Americans, not just for religious reasons, but for social reasons. It was a very important institution throughout the civil rights movement.

And it provides a space of safety, solace and community as a buffer against a lot of the challenges of the outside world. How does all of this come back to climate anxiety and the kid question? Well, when you don’t have research that includes African Americans, for example, then you tend to assume that we don’t experience climate anxiety or that, if we do, it doesn’t have any impact on kid questions for us. And that’s not true. 

We can’t make that assumption, [but] people do make that assumption in the absence of research. And this research is the first and only of its kind that asks these questions and puts race at the center. And why did I want to do that? I wanted to establish an evidence base so that we are not left out of the discussion when it comes to climate, mental health and the kinds of resources that will be provided to communities to respond to the negative mental health impacts of climate change. And I also don’t want us to be left out of the discussion of how climate mental health impacts do, or potentially, will impact reproductive changes. I just want us to be in the discussion, and we can’t be if we’re left out of the research. 

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What was the most surprising finding in your research? And what does all of this mean for the future?

The thing that surprised me most, this came out in interviews, is that among some young people—especially those who have taken environmental studies classes in college or were environmental studies majors—there is more and more peer pressure to not have kids, and I was not expecting that. I was expecting to hear things along the lines of, “I really want kids, but I feel like I can’t have them. The world is a scary place, you know, climate change is getting worse.” And I did hear that a lot. But I expected that to be the overwhelming sentiment and what I heard, a number of times and was always surprised, was that, some people I interviewed said, “Well, when I talk to my friends and I say that I want children or that I want a large family, their response is ‘Eww, why would you want that? That’s awful.’” I was not expecting anti-child peer pressure among Gen Z. I did not anticipate that. Those are people who are planning to have one less child. Planning and behavior are not the same thing. 

So, you know, no one can predict what they will actually do. What does this mean for the future? I think that’s exactly the right question to ask, and none of us can predict. But what we need for the future is for our young people to feel excited and hopeful about the future that’s ahead of them, and to feel empowered to make the decisions that would make them happy in their lives, whether that is having children, adopting children, step-parenting or not being in children’s lives at all.

So, for me and for people I interviewed, it’s not fundamentally about babies or about children. That is a way, a high stakes way of getting us to what it fundamentally is about, which is how can we aggressively fight climate change right now and combat lackadaisical attitudes or profit-driven attitudes that really just favor business as usual, because ultimately the problem that needs to be solved is not climate anxiety, it’s climate change. Climate anxiety is a normal, natural response to climate change. Let’s fight and solve climate change, and then you won’t have the thing to be anxious about.

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